David MacKay

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David MacKay was a professor of Physics at Cambridge University. He worked on machine learning, information theory and neural networks, developed Dasher – an app allowing people with severe disabilities to type – and, in December 2008, self-published a book – Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air – in which he discussed, with worked-out ballpark figures, how we use energy and how we could supply enough energy for our needs sustainably, without greenhouse gas emissions.

In a short video released in October 2009 MacKay discussed some of the myths about tackling climate change, such as action on plastic bags and phone chargers, and explained how much energy we use for heating and transport, how much energy we can save personally and what needs to be done by governments – and how little they were doing.

In a talk at Harvard in October 2010 MacKay gave a presentation of much of the contents of SEWTHA.

In a March 2012 TEDx talk MacKay talked about one of the concepts he had introduced in SEWTHA: energy density. Using a novel visualisation, and an elegant example of roadside biofuel plantations, he showed the physical limitations of various energy systems for different countries.

SEWTHA was an improbable success: its first print run, which MacKay had paid £10K for out of his own pocket, sold out within days and the publishers reprinted it. It sparked a degree of public interest and discussion which was possibly instrumental in MacKay being appointed chief scientific officer of the (then) Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in September 2009. The Labour government at the time had just passed the Climate Change Act of 2008 which mandated an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. (At the time this was thought to be sufficient to effectively mitigate climate change.)

In April 2010, 6 months after starting work at DECC, MacKay gave a presentation at CalTech (where he had done his PhD), which covered some of the ground covered in SEWTHA, and also introduced a calculator he was working on with DECC staff to allow "what-if" modelling of emissions reductions options. The DECC 2050 Pathways calculator allows anyone to model emissions reductions pathways to attempt to reach the CCA 2008 80% by 2050 target. This was followed by a global calculator which included land use and lifestyle factors.

In October 2015, shortly before the 21st Conference Of the Parties (COP 21) opened in Paris, MacKay published a paper "Price carbon — I will if you will" advocating using game theory in negotiations to ensure ambitious commitments by countries rather than rewarding "freeloading".

However in July of 2015 MacKay had been diagnosed with an inoperable stomach cancer, and died in April 2016. He had recently married and he and his partner had two young children.

Barely a month before he died colleagues at Cambridge University organised a symposium in his honour. David Speigelhalter's talk on risk is particularly worth watching, in the context of sustainability. MacKay himself delivered a talk on the mathematical properties of wooden toy train sets as finite state machines, and presented his work as the Brio Theorems.

Less than two weeks before David died, his friend Mark Lynas recorded an interview with him, in which he discussed the motivation for SEWTHA: a desire to apply reality checks to claims about energy, from which he personally learned about the limits of various sources. In the interview MacKay reiterated his insistence that we need plans that add up rather than wishful thinking, and that we need to have grown-up conversations about our options.

Climate science

Here is a letter MacKay wrote to climate denialist Matt Ridley, in November 2010 in his capacity as chief scientist at DECC, in response to an article Ridley wrote for The Times. In it MacKay discusses the nature of science and how it is communicated (often poorly), and the evidence for anthropogenic climate change. It is a example of the clarity and open-mindedness MacKay typically brought to all sorts of discussions on such issues.


MacKay lightbulbs.jpg

Power to the people Leo Hickman; Guardian; 30 Apr 2009

How did a Cambridge physics professor come to write this year's must-read book about tackling our future energy needs? Leo Hickman went to meet him

Cambridge Ideas - How Many Lightbulbs? Cambridge University; Uploaded on 1 Oct 2009

Cambridge University physicist, David Mackay, in a passionate, personal analysis of the energy crisis in the UK, in which he comes to some surprising conclusions about the way forward. The film is based on his new book Sustainable Energy without the hot air, in which Prof Mackay has calculated the numbers involved for the alternatives to fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil.

SEWTHA presentation at CalTech 5 Apr 2010

"Sustainable Energy - without the hot air" at Caltech by Prof David MacKay FRS, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (2009-2014). Close-captioning kindly provided by CMU. 5-April-2010. original version

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air with David MacKay Harvard University; (uploaded) 25 Oct 2010

David MacKay, Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, UK addressed energy issues at a macro and micro scale with the Harvard University community and beyond.


I have started an open-source wiki [currently taken down because of vandalism by hackers] that contains estimates, for every country, of sustainable energy options. I encourage contributors to make these estimates in the same style as the book. Rough, clear, and focussing on the big fish. Hopefully this will be a useful teaching resource, and a useful enhancement to the book itself. The wiki also has a page for extensions to each chapter of the book.

Think big on renewables scale DavidMacKay; Guardian; 29 Apr 2009

Current renewable installations can only deliver small amounts of energy; so when we build clean energy facilities, we have to think big, says David Mackay

Criticisms & Attacks

Is David MacKay becoming part of the problem? Mark Brinkley; blog; 11 Mar 2010

since he took the Queen's Shilling and became Chief Scientific Advisor of the Department of Energy and Climate Change in September 2009, he has used his new found influence to promote air source heat pumps as the answer to our problems. "While in theory ground-source heat pumps might have better performance than air-source, because the ground temperature is usually closer than the air temperature to the indoor temperature, in practice an air-source heat pump might be the best and simplest choice," he writes in his book. And yet there a dozens of knowledgeable people out there who are distinctly queasy about air source heat pumps and think they may just make matters worse,

British Energy Demand, and Professor MacKay’s estimate of it: an explanation of the differences Andrew; Energy Numbers; 29 Jun 2010

In “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air”, Professor MacKay compares an energy demand of 195 kWh/d with his calculated British renewable resource of 180 kWh/d, and comes to the conclusion that Britain cannot power itself from renewables. But in reality, British energy demand is 155 Mtoe/y. That’s the confirmed 2008 number, from the official Digest of UK Energy Statistics. (pdf, see Table 1.1, Final Consumption minus Non-energy use). That’s less than half the demand figure used in the book, when looking at whether his calculated renewable resource is enough. When we compare the renewable resource with the current demand figure, we see that the resource is more than double current energy demand: and that’s before any energy efficiency measures. And that makes a huge difference: by using the real figure for demand, we see that the UK renewable resource is much higher than current energy demand, so Britain could comfortably power itself from its own renewables.

Comment on blog by Patrick Stewart; 4 Apr 2011

To be fair, that comparison on page 103 is between his two ballpark figures based on back of an envelope estimates. His actual conclusions on what is and isn’t possible are much later in the book (page 203 onwards), but as you seem to half-acknowledge above, on the following pages (104 and 107) he compares both of these estimates to official figures. He finds that he overestimated consumption by about 50% as compared to the same DTI figures you’re using except from 2006 rather than 2008; mostly by including the energy used to make things that isn’t expended in the UK. So pretty much your entire article is already in the book. He uses those corrected figures, with further reductions due to efficiency, in the rest of the book, including in his actual conclusions.

What you haven’t written about at all is that he also finds that his total renewable energy potential estimates were very optimistic, about 3-10 times higher than similar estimates by several other groups.

I don’t really know why I’m posting this, you’re clearly already aware of it, it’s in you graphs; I just can’t understand how you can complain about Mackay inflating his figures while also being aware that they’re lower than yours in his conclusions on pg 204. If you actually read the text on page 103 it clearly says “Now we will see if these estimates are correct”, not “so here I have conclusively proved renewables are insufficient”

David MacKay’s ‘Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air’… Perhaps A Little Hot Air? anonymous author; This Blue Rock blog; 16 May 2011

anti-nuclear blog

The Bottom Line BBC, 4 Feb 2016

Solar Century salesman claims SEWTHA is out of date.
(MacKay responded that Laws of Physics haven't changed)

TEDx talk

A Reality Check on Renewables David MacKay; TEDx Warwick; Mar 2012

How much land mass would renewables need to power a nation like the UK? An entire country's worth. In this pragmatic talk, David MacKay tours the basic mathematics that show worrying limitations on our sustainable energy options and explains why we should pursue them anyway.

TEDxWarwick - David MacKay - How the Laws of Physics Constrain Our Sustainable Energy Options Published on 22 Mar 2012

Department of Climate Change Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor David MacKay FRS, is responsible for ensuring the best science and engineering advice underpins DECC's policy and decision-making. In addition to his role at DECC, David is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge. He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and then obtained his PhD in Computation and Neural Systems at the California Institute of Technology. He returned to Cambridge as a Royal Society research fellow at Darwin College. He is internationally known for his research in machine learning, information theory, and communication systems, including the invention of Dasher -- a software interface that enables efficient communication in any language with any muscle. He has taught Physics in Cambridge since 1995 and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society. David is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air, which is intended to help people understand the numbers around sustainable energy.



Solar energy in the context of energy use, energy transportation, and energy storage David J C MacKay FRS; Article submitted to Royal Society; 2013?

Taking the United Kingdom as a case study, this paper describes current energy use and a range of sustainable energy options for the future, including solar power and other renewables. I focus on the the area involved in collecting, converting, and delivering sustainable energy, looking in particular detail at the potential role of solar power.

Carbon Pricing paper

Price carbon — I will if you will David J. C. MacKay, Peter Cramton, Axel Ockenfels & Steven Stoft; Nature; 12 Oct 2015

To forge a strong climate accord in Paris, nations must agree on a common goal in everyone's self-interest, say David J. C. MacKay and colleagues.

Negotiations at the United Nations climate summit in Paris this December will adopt a 'pledge and review' approach to cutting global carbon emissions. Countries will promise to reduce their emissions by amounts that will be revised later. The narrative is that this will “enable an upward spiral of ambition over time”. History and the science of cooperation predict that quite the opposite will happen.

Climate change is a serious challenge because the atmosphere gives a free ride to countries that emit. If some nations sit back and rely on others' efforts, the incentives for anyone to act are weakened. Review of the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol at the 2012 UN climate meeting in Doha, for instance, resulted in Japan, Russia, Canada and New Zealand leaving the agreement, frustrating those who kept their promises.

Success requires a common commitment, not a patchwork of individual ones. Negotiations need to be designed to realign self-interests and promote cooperation. A common commitment can assure participants that others will match their efforts and not free-ride. A strategy of “I will if you will” stabilizes higher levels of cooperation. It is the most robust pattern of cooperation seen in laboratory and field studies of situations open to free-riding2.


Tributes paid to Professor Sir David MacKay Jack Higgins; Varsity; 14 Apr 2016

Cambridge scientist, noted for his work on climate change and praised as a “truly good man”, has passed away aged 48

Professor Sir David MacKay, physicist – obituary Daily Telegraph; 15 Apr 2016

What David MacKay taught me, and taught us all Mark Lynas; 15 Apr 2016

Sir David MacKay obituary Mark Lynas; Guardian, 18 Apr 2016

Cambridge physicist and government scientific adviser with a rational approach to the climate and energy debate

David MacKay – last interview and tribute Mark Lynas; 27 Apr 2016 Template:Quoye

Idea of renewables powering UK is an 'appalling delusion' – David MacKay Damian Carrington; Guardian, 3 Mat 2016

Country should focus on nuclear power and carbon capture technologies, former chief scientific adviser said in his final interview

Article based on last interview with Mark Lynas

Without The Hot Air pete; Mythic Beasts; 15 Apr 2016

It’s with great sadness we learned of the death of Prof Sir David MacKay, FRS. He taught three of the Mythic Beasts founders information theory in 1999–2000, a fascinating and stunningly well-lectured course. The textbook Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms is freely available to download. Prof MacKay believed it was possible to make the world a better place.

RIP Sir David MacKay Athene Donald; 16 Apr 2016

Many people have been paying tribute to David MacKay, who died on Thursday, and I would like to add my own voice. He was an extraordinary man who contributed so much to physics and wider societal issues during his tragically short life. Although I never worked directly with him, nor even interacted with him much during the many years we worked in the same department (Cavendish Laboratory) in Cambridge, nevertheless somehow his character pervaded the world around him and made us all more aware of the importance of finding ways to communicate beyond our own communities.

A tribute to former DECC chief scientific adviser Sir David MacKay Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Fellow, Darwin College, Cambridge; 16 Apr 2016

He was an intellectual genius with immense humanity, a strong sense of social justice and an endearing sense of humour. He had once-in-a generation brilliance – a polymath whose works were seminal across an unimaginable span of subjects.

Tributes following the death of Professor Sir David MacKay Science Media Centre; 15 Apr 2016

Martin Rees & others

David MacKay Matthew Garrett; 14 Apr 2016

The first time I was paid to do software development came as something of a surprise to me. I was working as a sysadmin in a computational physics research group when a friend asked me if I'd be willing to talk to her PhD supervisor. I had nothing better to do, so said yes. And that was how I started the evening having dinner with David MacKay, and ended the evening better fed, a little drunker and having agreed in principle to be paid to write free software.

AI and energy expert David McKay has died Brian Wang; Next Big Future; 15 Apr 2016

He also co-founded Transversal, a software company that specialises in search based on natural speech and wrote the textbook "Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms", available online for free.

David JC MacKay: a publisher's memories of a remarkable man and his remarkable book Niall Mansfield, Publisher; UIT Cambridge Ltd.; 19 Apr 2016 (date of email)

In 2008 UIT Cambridge published David MacKay's book, Sustainable Energy - without the hot air. I have worked with him as editor and publisher and known him as a friend in the eight years since then. These recollections are from my personal experience, so they focus on his book and related events.

R.I.P. David Mackay (1967-2016) "Telescoper"; 15 Apr 2016

(By Peter Coles, Professor in, and Head of, the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University in Ireland)

A tribute on this site

Further reading & resources